From Keralan canals to Tamil temples and the joy of being blessed by an elephant…


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Asia » India » Tamil Nadu » Thanjavur
January 12th 2013
Published: January 12th 2013
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I'm writing this entry as the sun slowly sets over Thanjavur on our last night in India. The locals are all engaged in a frantic rush of activity in anticipation for the upcoming three day harvest festival known as Pongol. People are stocking up on vast swathes of sugar cane and rice, paints are being bought to decorate one's doorstep and cows are being washed down and having their horns painted in all sorts of vibrant colours.

Having been on the move and engaging in various activities pretty well non-stop up until now, we were all quite looking forward to the opportunity of doing very little and recharging the proverbial batteries. Thus, we slowly made our way south from Cochi to spend a couple of relaxing days cruising the backwater canals of Kerala and doing exactly that – very little.

And indeed, our boat seemed to be designed for just such a purpose and was one of the best crafts that we came across – while most of the boats that cruise up and down the canals nowadays are made of fibre glass and steel, ours, the quite appropriately named, if not slightly twee, Dream Voyager, was a beautiful barge made from imported Burmese teak and of the absolute highest quality. These boats were traditionally used as rice barges until some crafty local fella cottoned on to how much tourists would actually pay for a night on one of them and a massive industry suddenly exploded on to the sleepy Keralan backwaters. There are now apparently 500-plus such pleasure boats and as we pulled into what was literally peak hour on the main canal with barges back to back as far as the eye could see, we inwardly grimaced at what could easily be a quite crowded and unrelaxing few days. However, while most people just experience a day trip or overnighter, Ann, bless her, had had the foresight and wisdom to book us in for two nights which allowed us the freedom to quickly move away from the main highway and into the quieter and much more remote canals.

It was truly and absolutely blissful, lying around in easy chairs or sprawled on pillowed day-beds, reading and watching the countryside slowly drift by. Smaller canals branch off from the larger ones and little villages cluster on the edges, poking out from the rice paddies. There are no roads and thus no cars, and each house has a small canoe tied up out front for transport. Everywhere, children frolicked in the water, men fished from little canoes and the women did the washing by vigorously scrubbing and then smacking the clothes on large rocks, the echoes of which continuously reverberated up and down the canals.

The birdlife was magnificent and as the sun slowly set behind the paddies, we relaxed over a beer and watched the eagles, kites, koels, herons, egrets, terns, cormorants, bee-eaters, cuckoos, drongos, swifts and of course the various species of the famous kingfishers for which India is renowned for, swoop and dart by.

The food, if possible, seemed to get even better as we were blessed with our very own Keralan masterchef who would begin chopping ingredients as the sun rose and continued in this manner for much of the day. He also had a delightful, if somewhat disconcerting, habit of hovering over us as we ate, poised with dish in hand to top up any particular delicacy the moment the last remnants had been eaten. While obviously none of us complained, it did have the result of meaning that we probably ate three times as much as was really necessary and it led to the quite comical yet equally perplexing issue of how to actually stop this bloke in order to prevent an ongoing and endless meal…

It was also lovely as we floated around to hear the various religious calls waft out over the water. A Hindu temple might begin, and as that faded in the distance, a mosque’s call to prayer would echo out over the fields. The local churches seemed to take the cake as they blasted out the Sunday morning psalms via massive speakers (eerily reminiscent of New Year’s Eve) so that you could literally hear it miles away – a sort of Christian version of bringing the mountain to Mohammed I suppose.

Alas, too quickly it was over and we ever so reluctantly disembarked and began a long day of driving up over the Ghats and back into Tamil Nadu and to the city of Madurai. From here on it was pretty well all about the temples, the only differences being the size, the number of faithful attending and the utter extravagance on show. The Sri Meenakshi temple is one of the three most important in India and we spent an amazing morning wandering around it, taking in the massive gopurams that tower high over the complex and that are decorated with gods, goddesses, heroes and demons that are painted in bright, vivid colours. (Apparently they are touched up every twelve years and the process itself takes over a year.) We were repeatedly mobbed by pilgrims - especially blond-haired Beth, red-haired Tom and the towering 6ft 3 Jack, a figurative giant who looms over the locals. It was wonderful to just chat to the various devotees (again, occasionally about religion and life, but mostly about the cricket – India had just beaten arch-nemesis Pakistan in the last one dayer to finally notch up a win, so the local mood was much more jubilant) and to just take in the ablutions, prostrations and general devotions going on all around us. All through our trip, we’ve come across hundreds of pilgrims making their way to a particular temple, mostly shirtless ones wrapped in black dhotis with smears of ash on their foreheads and with large bells dangling from their necks but also clusters of red, yellow and green devotees, all heading to a specific temple somewhere - apparently around forty to fifty million of them hit the road each year). In the modern 21st century, most travel by bus, but the really devout will walk at least a large part of the pilgrimage and the truly virtuous ensure that they fast for the preceding month and a half as well. As we passed over the mountains, we’d spot clusters of these barefoot devotees slowly trudging along the side of the road, patiently going about their religious duties…

Despite small communities of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, Hinduism is the driving force in India and is such an integral part of the everyday life here and we’ve gradually learnt the very basics of the gods and goddesses and their countless incarnations. I won’t do the disservice of going into much detail where I would inevitably muddle things but generally speaking, there exists the holy trinity of Brahman, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Siva, the destroyer and their consorts. Then come the hundreds of offspring, aspects and so forth. An obvious favourite of the locals is Ganesh, the chubby elephant-headed god whose purpose is to clear life’s obstacles and hurdles and whose representation is found absolutely everywhere - outside of houses, under trees, on the dashboards of buses and in countless other settings. While most gods have very strict instructions on how their temples are built – pillars need to be thus high, entrances facing this way, and so on, Ganesh is apparently pretty happy anywhere and requires very little in the way of absolute requirement, apparently even quite happy sitting on the side of a grubby road in the monsoonal rains…

After our morning templing, we headed north into the little village of Kothamangalam in the province of Chettinad and to the wonderfully restored Saratha Vilas. Early last century, the whole area was home to a host of rich Indian traders who made their fortunes trading and lending money across the British Empire and they had proceeded to build themselves these remarkably lavish mansions throughout the region. Inevitably they fell onto hard times and around a thousand of these decrepit and crumbling houses dot the landscape today. Saratha Vilas has been painstakingly restored by two French architects and decked out with wonderful local artefacts and icons, and is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful retreat well off the tourist trail. We happily based ourselves here for a couple of nights as we explored the countryside, visiting 6th century rock temples and the local tile-making village where we all stood astounded at the immense and complex skills of the local artisans as they created the most beautiful and elaborate tiles in mere moments. Of course Jane ‘suggested’ we buy a set and thus I have the unenviable task of lugging these massive concrete based tiles around Sri Lanka.

The region is also renowned for its large terracotta horses (quite interesting as we are yet to see an actual live horse in India) which are created for religious ceremonies each year and then deposited in a sort of horse graveyard where they slowly disintegrate back into the earth. It was actually a bit odd walking around the graveyard where these various headless, legless and even generally bodyless creations linger on. However, I was quite taken with these clay figures so this time I ‘suggested’ buying one, which Jane now has the pleasure of lugging around Sri Lanka…

Our final days in India were spent in the neighbouring towns of Thanjavur (otherwise known as Tanjore) and Tiruchirappalli (otherwise, thankfully, known as Trichy) again exploring various temples, including the biggest one in India where celebrations and festivals occur 320 days a year (except of course for the particular day that we visited), chatting to devotees and pilgrims and even being blessed by elephants. Peter had been recounting when they had previously been to Madurai and he’d been blessed by a giant pachyderm who he was hoping would remember him. Much to his, and indeed all of our disappointment, the animal in question was on his yearly 45-day retreat (as Tom grumbled, that was more than he gets annually) to obviously recharge his batteries and give his poor, overworked trunk a bit of a rest. However, in Tanjore as we wandered through the gates of the temple, we were fortunate enough to be met by a lovely elephant who proceeded to take our ten rupee note in her trunk, hand it off to the mahout and then blessed us with a nice, lingering kiss on the top of the head. Thankfully, I splashed out as apparently a mere two rupee donation is but a brief peck, denying the devotee the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime photo…

Our final stop was to visit the shores of the Kaveri River, which is the South Indian version of the mighty and holiest of holy Ganges. We’d paused here to witness the traditional dispersal of cremated ashes into the river and watched on as mourners with their heads ritually shaven sat with pates bowed as priests chanted blessings to ensure a safe passage of loved ones. Clouds of incense shrouded the area and bursts of colourful flowers dotted the pavement as families completed the process and sent their cherished ones on.

And that is pretty much that. A huge thankyou to Ann who had spent countless hours organising and fine-tuning this wonderful trip – full of great company, beautiful places and wonderful experiences. And to those who may have pondered the wisdom of spending a fortnight with the in-laws in what can be a sometimes challenging country, I can only say we’ve had a truly amazing time and all got along much better then could ever have been expected.

And an even bigger thankyou to the wonderful people we’ve met on this trip. The locals have been so friendly and welcoming and ever eager to help out, or just to pause and discuss life, and of course, the cricket. And while Tom and Beth now return home and Ann, Peter & Jack board the train north, Jane and I turn our sights south to Sri Lanka, where we’ll be swapping Ganesh for Buddha and the subtly flavoured curries for the eye-watering spicy ones. At least they’ll still want to talk about the cricket…

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15th January 2013

Thank you
Once again we enjoyed every word of your blog. We have a Ganesh just inside our front door! I have been having meditations at our house while our main group is in holiday recess and I also provide morning tea for a gold coin donation. We raised enough to sponsor an orphaned baby elephant so it can be retrained to go back into the wild in Africa. Thank you for bringing India to us. You should be a travel writer Simon plus a guide! Sonia and Warren Jamieson
15th January 2013

Hey there, Thanks for the lovely words yet again. Indeed, it is a wonderful country. Currently sitting among the tea plantations and cascading waterfalls of Ella, high in the Sri Lankan hills. Absolutely gorgeous and yet again, beautiful people. Hope to have next instalment up soon. Thanks again for the lovely words and take care...

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